I never met Stan Lee. So, I have no anecdotes of any personal interactions with him that I can share. I wish I did, because everything I’ve ever heard of him, read about him or seen in interviews has been nothing but glowing. I have a friend who worked with him in Marvel Comics, and the stories are consistent. Stan was a genial, savvy, creative, gregarious, enthusiastic gentleman.
But even though I was braced for his passing following his failing health after the loss of his wife Joanie last year and his increasing frailness over the past few months, news of his death was like a punch to the stomach, and I was glad I was alone when I learned he was gone.
So, the thing is, I never met him face to face, but he’s been a very big part of my life practically throughout its span. Stan Lee spoke to my generation. And he did it in a way nobody ever had before. I was born in 1960. My first exposure to comic books was Batman and DC Comics. Batman was everywhere in 1966. What a time to be a child. But the following year, my world got a little bit bigger as I discovered at the age of seven there were other comic books, other characters and another publisher. This one was called Marvel Comics (Or, more properly, The Marvel Comics Group). And this roster of characters was vastly different from DC.
Whereas in the sixties, DC characters were more clearly defined as good guys and bad guys, the comics more wholesome and the characters cleaner cut, Marvel characters were less easily defined, lines were often crossed, misunderstandings were commonplace and the heroes were often sought by the authorities to answer for their actions. Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne would often appear at the beginning and end to top and tail a story with the brunt of the story being about the more dramatic alter egos. Marvel characters would have to juggle their civilian identity in a far more convincing way. I remember a Spider-Man issue without the webslinger – only Peter Parker.
To my young self, Marvel stories took a lot more time to read than DC, and it took a further reading to get all the nuances that my single age self just didn’t understand. Little did I know that they were being written with a college audience in mind. While the rest of the world was absorbed in the simplistic Pow! Bam! action of the Batman TV series, Marvel was quietly bringing racial diversity into their street scenes. There was a moral complexity and a nagging self-doubt to most of their heroes as well as an inner monologue. All of this was due to Stan (The Man) Lee.
Marvel began a trend of crediting their writers (usually in the sixties, the writer was Lee himself) and the artists, inkers and letterers so the name Stan Lee became familiar to me and millions upon millions like me. He’d write editorials in the comics, called Stan’s Soapbox. Here he’d address whatever came to mind. From the latest titles on sale to racial prejudice – all in a friendly, non-preachy way. He would also get a message across by making a metaphor in his titles – the X-Men spoke to anybody who felt like an outsider, anybody who was outcast as a misfit (so, practically everybody). Drugs were addressed for the first time in Spider-Man. Black Panther became the first black costumed character in a story in The Fantastic Four – then sadly had to be side-lined for a while when a group calling themselves Black Panther made the news before he made a triumphant return.
Lee also pulled off the greatest feat in comics. One that I hadn’t realised until I read about it in a graphic novel introduction a few years ago. The Marvel universe in the comics was so tightly interwoven and co-ordinated that whenever a big event happened in one of the comics (for example the Atlanteans invading New York in a Fantastic Four annual in the mid-sixties) - seeing as practically ALL their costumed heroes were based in the Big Apple, I always wondered why some of the other heroes didn’t jump in to help out. It turned out that for those epic events, every other character had been written out of the city on different missions and adventures in other locations, thus there never was a continuity error. It was all taken care of. Lee had crafted his universe so that nobody else was available. I, and others, had never realised that. You had to step back and look at the bigger picture.
Lee was basically THE Geek God to us comic book fans, and over the years, my interest in superhero comics waned for about ten years until the publication of The Dark Knight Returns lured me back. Okay, that was a DC title, but remember, DC got me to reading comic books in the first place. It didn’t take me long to check out what Marvel were doing, and before I had a chance to realise what was happening, I was hooked again – seemingly for good this time, as that was in 1986 and I haven’t stopped yet. One of the things that delighted me back then was the realisation that Stan Lee was still in action. After all, comics wouldn’t be the same without him.
During my ten-year lull, one of the very few forays I had was the purchase of a book length comic about The Silver Surfer, written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby – unknown to me, I had bought the first ever graphic novel, which I still have to this day. Speaking of my collection, one of my most prized possessions is of the first picture I saw of Spider-Man in the run-up to Sam Raimi’s film of 2002. I had that same image as my wallpaper on my original desktop for years. But the framed photo of that same image has been hand signed by Stan Lee himself.
Actually, seeing that film back in the summer of 2002 drove me to collect the Marvel Essentials books, which gathered twenty-five or so consecutive issues of their comics. Over a few years, I was able to reintroduce myself to basically the whole of Marvel’s silver age output – the golden age of Stan Lee. Reading these as an adult rekindled my enthusiasm for comic books as a medium and for the works of Lee even further. It had long been a contention of mine when reading these as a kid and having my comics ridiculed as mindless, brain destroying trash by my parents and older sisters that the vocabulary and grammar in them was actually very good. And damn, if I wasn’t proved right. My own kids were raised on them. I made sure of that.
Of course, if you had told me back fifty-one years ago in 1967, when 7-year-old me saw my first Marvel Comic (I believe it was issue 45 of Spider-Man with the Lizard on the cover, drawn by John Romita) that I would still be enjoying Stan Lee’s work and looking out for his film cameos in my late fifties, I would never have believed you.
When times were bad – and there were some bad times in my childhood, reading his stories made the world a little better. His stories have given my imagination colour and the ability to soar. His influence was strong in my teens, returned in my twenties and has only gained in strength ever after. Now, here I am, retired from the workaday life, and as I look at my fast approaching sixties, I still love spending time reading his work and sometimes I get to write about his characters.
One final little personal story that illustrated how important Lee was to me. Earlier this year, I suffered a heart attack followed by a further serious heart problem while in hospital. Now, I have two stents and I’m on several tablets every day. Whenever someone asks me how I feel, I say “I have titanium in my heart and my blood is a weird chemical soup. I’m more like a Marvel character now than ever. I feel great”.
So, thank you Stan Lee, not only for all the adventures and characters, both heroic and villainous, but also for helping this particular misfit through some hard times from childhood up to the present day. Thank you for the optimism. Rest well.
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